Big changes abound on the defensive side of the ball for the 2021 Dallas Cowboys. Along with a new coordinator in Dan Quinn, a lot of news faces have been added at every position via free agency and the draft. While we're looking forward to watching all of these unfold, which position promises the toughest battle in this year's training camp?
There's lots to talk about at defensive tackle. Free agents Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins, plus rookies Osa Odhigizuwa and Quinton Bohanaa, are joining the mix with returning prospects Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore. It's doubtful all six will make the team and how the snaps will be divided between the survivors is also hard to predict. This is about as wide-open as it gets for a position battle.
Cornerback is another spot full of question marks. While Trevon Diggs feels like a sure thing for on starting job, how will the rest shake out between Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright, and several other returning contenders? It's hard to even call an early favorite right now; anything feels possible between Brown, Joseph, and Lewis to claim the CB2 and CB3 roles.
Defensive end and safety both have projected starting duos but unpredictability among the backups. We expect to see DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Damontae Kazee, and Donovan Wilson all on the 1st-team defense but who files in behind them is hard to predict. Dallas has assembled many options for 2021 between their carryovers from last year and new faces like Tarell Basham and Chauncey Golston at DE or Jayron Kearse and Israel Mukuamu at safety.
Again, lots to watch at all of these positions. But when it comes to the absolute hottest spot for this year's camp and preseason, I don't think you can pick anywhere but linebacker.
Since 2016 the Cowboys have spent two 1st-Round picks and a high 2nd to find difference-makers at linebacker. We thought in 2018 that those efforts had paid off with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but their sharp declines in recent years pushed Dallas to draft Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox in 2021.
Also joining the fray is Keanu Neal, the former Pro Bowl safety who's converting to linebacker now with the Cowboys. While that transition could be a hindrance depending on the result, Neal has his relationship with Dan Quinn from Atlanta as an extra chip that his fellow contenders don't currently enjoy.
Is anything certain between these players going into camp? Would Dallas have even made the moves they did with Neal and Parsons if they felt secure with Smith and Vander Esch?
There's a new coaching regime in town who had no hand in drafting Jaylon or Leighton. And if the Cowboys front office had strong feelings about them retaining their starting roles, it's hard to imagine they'd have spent the 12th-overall pick on another linebacker.
No, all signs point to a wide-open competition at every level. And though we said the same thing about defensive tackle, the emotions are going to run hotter at linebacker given the personalities and strong feelings some have about them.
More so than offense, defense allows for more committee approaches and diversity in usage at its positions. The official starters may not get many more snaps than some of their backups depending on rotations and various schemes and packages.
That said, there's still a pretty clear pecking order at any position. And when it comes to the linebacker spot for the 2021 Cowboys, there's really no telling how that will look until we start hearing about who ran with what team in camp and see how players are deployed in preseason games.
Hopefully, the actual competition will be as hot as the pre-camp intrigue.